I Am The Grass

I Am The Grass

by Jay Jamison

I have been to the battlefields of Gettysburg and Shiloh, I have been to no-man’s land in Flanders and I have walked on the landing beaches of Normandy. All these places make me pause and reflect on the actual cost of war. These places remind us of the suffering of ordinary servicemen who have born the battle. Most of us are not combat veterans. We can only wonder, and imagine the terror and agony, of what happened at places like those patches of ground where warriors overcame their fear and accomplished heroic things.

In 1876, the United States was set to celebrate its centennial as an independent nation. That June and July, everybody who was anybody was in Philadelphia, the city where American independence was first declared. Little did they know that 1,900 miles to the west, on June 25, in the Montana Territory, the United States Cavalry was engaged in a desperate battle on a trackless plain. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was an engagement between units of the U. S. 7th Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, and the combined forces of the Northern Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho tribes. It was a disaster for the U. S. 7th Cavalry. It took about two weeks for the news of the destruction of Custer’s command at Little Bighorn to reach the revelers in Philadelphia. The defeat of the 7th Cavalry shocked the nation. Last Stand Hill, where Custer’s troopers were finally surrounded and massacred, is a very sad place. Whatever your feeling may be about the wisdom of the policies that led to the battle, the valor of the fighters on both sides rings down through the decades.

Standing on that spot, last week on June 5, a day before the 49th anniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6, gave me pause. Each of these places were momentarily the locations of extreme violence — but for years, before and after the battles, these were tranquil venues. These battle locations are known to us because of the violent struggles that happened there. However, when any of us walk those grounds, sometimes many years after the terrible events that make their names famous, we usually experience a peaceful, pastoral place. I experienced that feeling standing on Last Stand Hill in Montana last week. The only sound was that of the wind, and the only visual experience was that of grassy plains extending in every direction. This experience is not unique to the Little Bighorn battlefield. I had a similar experience at the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach, the long grassy approach to the stone wall at Gettysburg and many other battlefields. The place where Custer’s men fell is literally an ocean of grass as far as the eye can see. Each of these experiences remind me of Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Grass.”

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work— 

I am the grass; I cover all. 

And pile them high at Gettysburg 

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. 

Shovel them under and let me work. 

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: 

What place is this? 

Where are we now? 

I am the grass. 

Let me work.

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